Over the past fifty years, increasing numbers of American Catholics have abandoned the economic positions associated with Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and chosen to embrace the principles of economic freedom and limited government: ideals upheld by Ronald Reagan and the Tea Party movement but also deeply rooted in the American Founding. This shift, alongside America's growing polarization around economic questions, has generated fierce debates among Catholic Americans in recent years. Can a believing Catholic support free markets?
In Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg draws upon Catholic teaching, natural law theory, and the thought of the only Catholic Signer of America’s Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton—the first “Tea Party Catholic”—to develop a Catholic case for the values and institutions associated with the free economy, limited government, and America’s experiment in ordered liberty. Beginning with the nature of freedom and human flourishing, Gregg underscores the moral and economic benefits of business and markets as well as the welfare state’s problems. Gregg then addresses several related issues that divide Catholics in America. These include the demands of social justice, the role of unions, immigration, poverty, and the relationship between secularism and big government.
Above all, Gregg underlines how economic freedom’s corrosion in America is undermining the United States’ robust commitment to religious liberty—a principle integral not only to the American Founding and the life of Charles Carroll but also the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. As a creative minority, Gregg argues, limited government Catholics can help transform the wider movement to reground the United States upon the best insights of the American Experiment—and thereby save that Experiment itself.
Some Highlights in the History of Liberty
The Edict of Milan
Christians had been persecuted intermittently for centuries, for refusing to venerate the emperor as “divine.” This civic ceremony, which affirmed the absolute right of the state over every citizen and slave in the empire, was so contrary to Christian belief that many Christians chose martyrdom when required to perform it. In 313, Emperor Constantine grants religious freedom to Christians and all other religious groups, thereby renouncing any claim to divinity. He later convenes the Council of Nicaea, and is baptized on his deathbed.
The Investiture Controversy
Holy Roman Emperors, who ruled Germany and much of Italy, face off against a series of popes over the question of who had the authority to choose bishops for the Church—the papacy or the state. Using the weapons of excommunication and interdict, the popes eventually prevail. This would preserve the Church’s independence until the Reformation, and prevent it from becoming (as elsewhere) merely the religious arm of the government.
The Magna Carta
English barons rebel against King John—who had been imposing arbitrary taxes and violating their traditional rights—even taking their sons as hostages to make sure that taxes were paid. The king is forced to offer a written guarantee, which would bind his successors, limiting the powers of the monarch. These nobles’ rights would later be extended to every English subject.
The Swiss Charter of Confederation
Three small, rural cantons unite to preserve their civic independence from the growing power of nearby feudal lords—establishing what would become the first popular democracy in Europe, with the most decentralized power. The Catholic political principle of subsidiarity calls for such decentralization, and the Swiss example would inspire the American Founders, who strictly limited the powers of the federal government.
The Papal Bull Sublimus Dei
Authorized by Pope Paul III, this document states that the native peoples of the Americas are just as much rational beings as Europeans. On this basis, Paul III outlines two conclusions. First, the peoples of the Americas are able to know and accept the Catholic Faith. Second, “the aforesaid Indians and all other nations which come to the knowledge of Christians in the future must not be deprived of their liberty and the ownership of their property. Rather, they must use, increase, and enjoy this freedom and ownership freely and lawfully.”
The Mayflower Compact
English Protestant “Pilgrims” fleeing persecution by an intolerant Anglican government draw up this document to establish a civic basis for their new colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It would serve as the first framework of government in the American colonies. In this compact, the colonists “solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony….”
The English Petition of Right
The English Parliament forces the autocratically inclined King Charles I to sign an act that restricts his power in key respects: He may not impose most taxes without legislative approval; soldiers may not be foisted on civilians in their homes; martial law may not be imposed without parliamentary approval; and the right of habeas corpus may not be rescinded at the king’s pleasure. This act extended key rights from the Magna Carta to ordinary subjects—and after the ensuing English Civil and Restoration, it served as the charter of limited, representative government in England. It would also be the key precedent cited by American colonists against King George III.
Maryland Toleration Act
Passed by the assembly of the colony of Maryland this Act grants freedom of religion to all trinitarian Christians in the colony, which an aristocrat English Catholic, Lord Baltimore, had established as a refuge for persecuted English Catholics. Though it was later repealed, parts of the Toleration Act would serve as a model for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees religious liberty.
The English Declaration of Rights
King James II of England—who offended Englishmen with his Catholicism and alliance with the autocratic, intolerant Louis XIV—has been overthrown, and the Parliament that convenes passes a bill restricting further the powers of English monarchs. Kings may no longer establish new courts; pass any taxes without Parliament’s approval; deprive citizens of weapons; maintain a standing army in peacetime without Parliament’s approval; interfere with parliamentary elections; restrict the freedom of legislators to speak for or against bills; or impose excessive bail or “cruel and unusual” punishments. This document becomes a model for both the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights. But it also confirms the deprivation of Catholics in England and her colonies of many of the rights accorded to other English subjects.</p>
Birth of Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Born into a Catholic family of successful business leaders in Maryland, Charles Carroll will be the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence thirty nine years later. A successful entrepreneur in his own right, Carroll becomes one of the wealthiest men in America, but also a legislator, political commentator, philanthropist, tireless advocate of economic liberty and free trade, indefatigable fighter for religious freedom, and close friend and unshakable supporter of General George Washington during the War of Independence. His cousin, Father John Carroll, will become the first Catholic bishop of the United States while another cousin, Daniel Carroll, will be one of only five men to sign both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.
The Boston Tea Party
The British Parliament has passed the Tea Act, imposing a excise tax on tea imported to the American colonies. If it stands, this will create a precedent for taxing American colonists who have no representation in Parliament. Led by the Sons of Liberty, members of the Patriot party in Boston attempt to have three ships full of tea sent back to Britain. When this fails, they dress up in Indian costumes, board the ships, and dump the tea into Boston Harbor. This act of rebellion provokes royal retribution, escalating the movement for resistance to British authority—and ultimately, for independence.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence
At the behest of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson completes the final draft of a document declaring the grievances of the American colonies against Great Britain. He cites the violation of the traditional “rights of Englishmen,” and invokes the language of natural law—“nature and nature’s God” —though it is left ambiguous which definition of natural law is cited. While many of the signers are Christians who tend to favor the classical and Christian definition, the Deists present favor the Lockean version of natural law.
Publication of The Wealth of Nations
Abolitionist and fierce critic of the “mercantile system” (i.e., crony capitalism), Adam Smith publishes the work that demonstrates how the habits and institutions of economic freedom are the arrangements that are most conducive to creating wealth and fostering wider freedoms throughout the social and political order. In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explains many of the social and moral underpinnings necessary for a market economy to function.
The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights
Representatives of U.S. states address the dysfunction of the loosely knit political system that emerged from the American Revolution, and create a federal system of government. Drawing on the extensive precedents in English political history of resistance to central authority, the drafters carefully balance the powers of each of the three branches of government—and intentionally make legislation hard to pass. They place the power to initiate taxes in the popularly elected, short-term House of Representatives; they give states the power to select their senators; they deprive the Executive branch of the power to make war without legislative approval. At the insistence of “anti-Federalists” who fear the encroachment on personal liberties, the signers append a Bill of Rights guaranteeing basic rights—first and foremost, the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.
Publication of Democracy in America
French Catholic aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville publishes his reflections on how Americans maintain liberty and pluralism despite the pressures inherent in democratic societies toward uniformity of opinion and oppressive egalitarianism. He cites as the most important check against French-style centralized democracy the American habit of free association that foster “civil society: the intermediate institutions that stand between individuals and the state—such as churches, civic associations, independent schools, and other voluntary groups—and which also promote the common good. Tocqueville also stresses the way in which religion and liberty support each other in America, in contrast to his native France where they have been at loggerheads since the French Revolution. Democracy in America also warns against the danger of “soft despotism:” when people voluntarily give up their liberty in return for the state’s guarantee of perpetual security.
The Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae
As a result of considerable work by American Catholic bishops and theologians such as John Courtney Murray, SJ, as well as Eastern European bishops—including a young Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), —the Second Vatican Council affirms the right of immunity from unjust coercion in matters of religious belief and practice. It does not ground this right in indifferentism, skepticism, or relativism. Rather it teaches that religious freedom is based upon the natural law and the duty of every person to seek and live truth, including religious truth, as individuals and communities.
Publication of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
American Catholic theologian Michael Novak writes a landmark book that carries forward the project of Carroll, Tocqueville, and Murray by laying out the case for a free economy, limited government, and religious freedom. Immensely controversial at the time, the book begins the process of developing a robust case for the market economy grounded in the Christian vision of the person and society and the American experience of ordered liberty.
Promulgation of Centesimus Annus
Pope John Paul II issues this landmark encyclical, which more clearly than any previous papal pronouncement recognizes the central value of free economic activity in the creation of wealth, the virtues associated with entrepreneurship and business, the uplifting of the poor, and the maintenance of personal and religious liberty. Many see this text as reflecting a careful and nuanced affirmation of particularly American insights into the institutions of freedom—especially economic and religious liberty—and how it may be preserved from both an over-mighty state and radical individualism.